'My husband had a pen on the paper to sign a purchase agreement on a house," says Brocato. 'It was a very real possibility we wouldn't come back."
But they did, opening their renovated Angelo Brocato on North Carrollton Avenue in September 2006. Today, their leap of faith and reinvestment have positioned the shop at the center of a restaurant row that has gone from utter destruction to bustling social and economic activity in a span of two years. The restaurants are doing good business, owners report, and patrons have embraced them as symbols of recovery.
'The men will keep their feelings inside, but a lot of the ladies come through here with tears in their eyes, telling us, "You being back gave us the courage to come back, too,'" says Brocato.
The stretch of Carrollton Avenue near the Canal Street intersection offers as dense a collection and diverse a mix of casual cuisine as can be found anywhere in the area. Some are revitalized stalwarts, like the 102-year-old Brocato, the Italian restaurant Venezia and the nearby Creole-Italian landmarks Mandina's and Liuzza's. The Tex-Mex cantina Juan's Flying Burrito and the Middle Eastern café Mona's are back, and the corner bar Wit's Inn now does a steady business in pizza and sandwiches thanks to a post-storm kitchen expansion. Repairs are continuing at Katie's Restaurant as well.
Others are new businesses that took over locations vacated by restaurants that couldn't return after the storm. A new Mexican restaurant, Taqueria Guerrero Mexico, and Honduran/Nicaraguan restaurant, El Riconsitto, share a block. The Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant Doson Noodle House relocated from the Riverbend and is within two blocks from the upscale Vietnamese fusion restaurant Café Minh and the Japanese restaurant Little Tokyo. There is also a franchise of the locally based WOW Café & Wingery chain.
Restaurants here faced more than wind damage and rotting kitchens, the common post-Katrina scourge of eateries across the city. Floodwater destroyed everything from walls to furnishings. Restaurant owners say repairs were often possible only through the hands-on help of family and friends. Savings accounts were emptied and loans drawn once insurance proceeds were exhausted. In some cases, owners have put off repairing their own homes to get their restaurants back in action. Some still live in FEMA trailers and work second jobs. Along the way, though, their individual commitments have resurrected a critical mass of restaurant options. They say that draws customers and helps all players.
'We sell very little dessert because Brocato's is down the street," says Anthony Bologna, owner of Venezia. 'Which is fine because the way we look at it, we send the business to Brocato's and we turn the tables faster here."
Because the damage to all of these buildings was extreme, so are their makeovers. The most radical transformation is K-Jean's Seafood, a boiled and fresh seafood purveyor formerly housed in a ramshackle succession of building additions.
'It was everything to us, but when the storm finished with it, it was nothing," says Kenan Buchert, who owns K-Jean's along with his wife, Liane.
But the Bucherts say they never doubted they would rebuild. In the spring following the disaster, they started selling boiled crawfish from the tailgate of their pickup truck behind the ruined store to keep in touch with customers. Eventually, the shop was bulldozed and replaced by a 4,000-square-foot, two-story cinderblock building packed with new equipment.
'Now, at least we're not constantly fixing something, everything is brand new," Buchert says.
A few post-storm enterprises have already come and gone here, including a short-lived daiquiri shop called Music City Café and a diner called Roosters. The latter's spot has become a new restaurant called Hot Burger, which opened in October (see Food News). The owners operated a small restaurant called Drama Café near the French Market for a few months, but quickly decided to relocate to a bigger space on North Carrollton.
Right next door is the latest addition to the scene, Arabesque, which was set to open last week (see Food News). Owners Sandra Bahhur and Luis Bernhard had operated Arabesque as an eclectic Mediterranean breakfast and lunch spot for several years in the downtown medical district, where they also hold hospital jobs. Prior to the storm, they bought a narrow shotgun house on North Carrollton and renovated it as a more ambitious reincarnation of Arabesque with dinner service. The flood wrecked all that work before they could open and drove the couple to Miami, where they bought a house and thought they might start over.
'Then customers started calling me and saying, "We miss you, when are you coming back?'" Bahhur says. 'I would start to cry. How could we not come back? It isn't easy coming back; easy would have been staying in Miami. But we see a lot of hope here now."